Electric dreams

Composer and musical mastermind Tod Machover explains why he’s launched a mass collaborative symphony in Toronto.

Tod Machover is one of just a handful of rare minds that has been able to bridge the divide between art, science and mass entertainment. A professor at the world-renowned MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), the US composer is a leading force in participatory music products. Projects to date include Brain Opera, Toy Symphony, and Hyperscore – artistic music sharing tools and experiences that led to commercial brands such as the globally successful Guitar Hero and Rock Band, console games that grew out of the MIT Media Lab, where he runs the Hyperinstruments and Opera of the Future groups.

It’s no underestimation to say that Guitar Hero and Rock Band changed the landscape of collective interactive musical gaming; not only did they encourage gamers to pick up mock instruments, but the products were fun, challenging and appealed to all generations – words that also describe Machover.

‘More and more people are having a hand in shaping music rather than just passively listening to music’

When we speak on the phone, Machover is up against the wire putting the finishing touches to A Toronto Symphony: Concerto for Composer and City. It’s a city-wide participatory piece commissioned by Toronto Symphony Orchestra that will premiere at the New Creations Festival in Toronto on 9 March this year, and will be conducted by TSO music director Peter Oundjian.

Machover, who was approached by the festival just over a year ago, sees the the creation of the symphony as more than just a composition project. It’s the beginning of an exploration into how audiences currently consume music – and where this will lead in the future.

‘I’ve been very interested in the fact that more and more people are having a hand in shaping music rather than just passively listening to music. I have two daughters, the youngest is 15, and she and her friends listen to most of their music on some sort of social media site, never on CDs and certainly never on iTunes.’

He says that this transference of how people physically engage with music is about more than just the actual act of listening to a piece. What is taking place is dynamic and organic. As a result, consumer habits are being formed that will dramatically alter the way we perceive, critique and judge musical output in the future.

‘They’ll [his daughter and her friends]usually listen to a piece of music made by well-known artists. They’ll listen to the original maybe once, but then it is like that game where you take a phrase and one person whispers it, and then another person whispers it to someone else, and it goes round in a circle. By the time it gets back to the start it sounds like a totally different phrase. Now when music is created, it gets lodged by an artist and then people make their own version of it, add a slight change, put it online and people listen to that and modify that – pretty soon they’re not listening to the original at all, and that’s an interesting phenomenon.’

For Machover, this phenomenon isn’t problematic. He says that he believes music is at its most powerful when a direct relationship is forged: yes, music can run as background noise but a fantastic live performance can sweep an audience away. ‘There are wonderful experiences to be had by thinking about a piece of music and modifying it and changing it. Presently, there isn’t really a good mechanism for people sharing knowledge about collaboration. As music goes around a circle it can get better and better – and not worse and worse.

However, what happens online, when lots of people share something, is that it becomes interesting but then kind of settles in the middle and turns a bit grey after a while. It’s hard for something amazing to come out of that.’

And this is where a project such as A Toronto Symphony: Concerto for Composer and City can have value. Machover has emboldened a widespread interest in creative community engagement whilst actively shaping and curating it. When TSO asked the composer to devise a project, he wanted to propose a different kind of model – one that would take an experienced artist, such as an orchestral musician, and create a situation where that person can communicate with individuals that are knowledgeable about music, as well as other musicians, and those with no existing knowledge or experience of music at all.

‘So I proposed to make a new symphony in collaboration with as many people in Toronto who wanted to take part as possible. And to make a piece which, in the end, would be my piece but would be a piece I’d really shared in gestation and development with the city.’

Logistically, the project combined the free flow of ideas with a formal structure. Machover began by releasing a graphic that reflected the shape of the piece, the feel of it – something he describes as a ‘lovely graphic score to show where it’s big and where it’s small and where it’s synchronised and fluid’.

He then sent out a call for submissions and engaged participants through a blog and a website. Here Torontonians could upload via SoundCloud favourite noises from the city, as well as suggesting places that Machover and his team could visit. The composition is divided into ‘Yours’, ‘Things Tod asked for’, ‘Mine’,‘Things he sent out’, and ‘Ours’,‘Things made collaboratively’.

Machover also created chord progressions and melodies that he sent out as an interactive challenge – these pieces could then be adapted via the Hyperscore software, or Constellations application that had been made available by his team at MIT.

‘One of the really important things to be happening right now, that will mark our age, is how we are opening up to participation’

Yet, what is most interesting about the project is that, even though the potential of digital collaboration dominated, it was the series of face-to-face meetings that made the biggest impression. ‘One of the big surprises for me is that I’d originally thought that a lot of this back and forth and meeting people and trading ideas could be done purely online. It turned out some could be done online but a lot of it was done by finding people in Toronto and saying, “How about I come next Saturday, and we’ll talk about what interests you in terms of collaborating and contributing.”’

The face-to-face meetings were made up of a wide group of people that extended from musicians in the orchestra, including sectional musicians that wouldn’t usually participate in this sort of creative project, the Toronto Youth Symphony, aged from 14-18, and teachers and summer school students. Machover also contacted non-classical artists, including musicians appearing at an indie rock festival, cultural festivals, cultural days. He and his team even walked from neighbourhood to neighbourhood simply talking to people.

‘Interestingly the online demographic was slightly older, rather than the reverse as you’d expect,’ says Machover. ‘A lot of people I met personally in Toronto were 30 and younger, right down to kids. Online, for some reason, a lot people who contributed were senior.’ Interest in the project accumulated via stories on CBC radio (Canadian Broadcasting Company), or quite simply word of mouth. And the project really caught fire when a human narrative was introduced.

But how does one measure a work such as this? If participatory art is the future, how will the concept of genius be recognised? The key figures of the Enlightenment or Renaissance eras were independent, not leaders of a mass collaborative community of thousands.

‘I think that one of the really important things to be happening right now, that will mark our age, is how we are opening up to participation. Current technology and the Internet gives us access to so much more. Especially if you think of the difference between the Gutenberg Press, and the kind of access people had to the written word before that when compared to now, and what an incredible explosion it was to make knowledge available to many more people.’

According to Machover the Internet has opened up participation on a scale that at the moment we can’t fully appreciate. ‘We have a voice through this technology, so all those things exist but that does not mean that there are structures in place to make that work very well. I think that the really critical process that is going on right now – that will mark this period, and which I think my colleagues and I are indeed involved in – is how do you turn that new access and democracy into something that is powerful and rich and sophisticated and meaningful – rather than just chaotic?

‘Traditional social media has kind of run its course,’ he adds. ‘Every day you read an article on national public radio about how short the life is of most rhetorics like Facebook or Twitter. Each of them has certain things it is good at, but becomes stale very fast.’ He adds that this is because these forms of social media are shallow. The way forward is by forging meaningful and sophisticated connections. ‘Experiences with value that are put out in the world in future are no longer going to be just one-way things – I think that if consumers, if people seeking knowledge, if people seeking learning, are having more and more access to knowledge, everybody will have more access to making their own version of each experience.’

‘The boundaries between who’s the composer, who’s the performer, and who is the listener will become very amorphous’

So far A Toronto Symphony has been an exhilarating project for the composer. It has attracted a huge amount of interest from orchestras worldwide and Machover is currently in discussions with organisations in several parts of the US as well as in Europe, Australia and Asia. In August, he will again team up with conductor Peter Oundjian for the premiere of a similarly inspired commission, Edinburgh: Festival City on 27 August to be performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

Is this type of creative activity going to become more common? ‘I think increasingly we’ll have a model where the boundaries between who’s the composer, who’s the performer, and who is the listener will become very amorphous and might change for each piece – and I think each of those participants will have an active role and not a passive one,’ he says. ‘But I’m talking about real collaboration with meaning; I think there is a new model where a group of people can do extraordinary things together, combining democracy and excellence. There are all sorts of micro-collaborations that will start alongside this project that I’ve tried in Toronto, which are going to be part of the future. I think it’s an important model to grow.’

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